Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Fiji funding will change game

Fiji impressed at the World Cup without claiming a major scalp. Photo / Getty Images
Fiji impressed at the World Cup without claiming a major scalp. Photo / Getty Images

Significant rather than sexy is the best way to think of the new funding made available to Fiji's professional rugby players.

Nearly a quarter of a million dollars a year will be made available for the next three years to educate and equip Fijian players to better understand the mechanics of professional sport and how to arm themselves to get more out of their careers.

The funding is being provided by Fiji's Reserve Bank and New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade as part of the Player Personal Development Programme that will later extend to Samoa and Tonga.

It's a significant step because the central theme of the Fijian - Pacific Island - rugby story is exploitation. Those with money, power and influence have used the islands as a cheap labour source.

French club rugby particularly, but all major professional competitions have used Pacific Island athletes to spruce up their rugby offering and hike the price to sponsors and broadcasters.

There are more than 600 professional rugby players around the world who come from a Pacific Island background and few are appropriately rewarded for the explosive skills they bring.

Maybe this will start to change as this new programme gives Fijian players access to education and support services.

It means Fiji's elite players will be afforded the same of educational and personal development support that has been available in New Zealand for more than a decade.

It matters, because with help players can build realistic and robust expectations about what life will be like offshore for them.

It will provide opportunity for players to put more back into Fijian rugby when they finish and probably, as has been evidenced in New Zealand, it will help them become better players.

The better people make better All Blacks philosophy is easily mocked, but then back-to-back World Cups and just three defeats in four years suggest there is merit to the idea.

Fiji head coach John McKee is in no doubt about the significance of the programme.

"What was happening is that typically our players would head offshore young, many to New Zealand, where they would play a year or two of NPC, maybe get some Super Rugby, and then move again, to Europe," says McKee.

"Increasingly though, they are just heading straight to France and they have little understanding of what it is to be a professional rugby player."

The problems with that are manifold: players don't settle, they become unhappy and isolated in a strange land where they don't speak the language. Ultimately they don't fulfil their potential and the Fijian national team lose good players.

McKee is confident that education will have a profound impact and that his players will make smarter career decisions, learn how to better adapt to professional life offshore and improve as players.

He recently spent three weeks in Europe talking to senior internationals and emerging stars, and the feedback from the latter was that they were desperate to play for their country.

This hasn't always been the case. Many young Pacific Islanders have adopted their country of residence in recent years.

Part of that has been driven by the greater money available, but some of it has been around a lack of confidence and trust in the set-ups of the respective national teams and wider administration.

Fiji, despite being disappointed not to take a major scalp at the World Cup, played consistently impressive and effective rugby and that, combined with the personal development programme, is persuading young players to commit.

- Herald on Sunday

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